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Top US officials, lawmakers meet with Gantz as Jerusalem fumes

News: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries are both meeting privately Tuesday with Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet and a frequent foil to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Speaker Mike Johnson won’t meet with Gantz, according to sources close to the speaker. There was a discussion about holding a bipartisan meeting, but Johnson wasn’t interested. Johnson has spoken to Netanyahu and Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer since the outbreak of the war against Hamas in Gaza last year. Gantz met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday.

Israeli officials are frequent visitors to Washington and to the Capitol. In normal times, this wouldn’t be noteworthy.

But Gantz’s trip to Washington has become a mini-scandal in Israel. The former defense minister is in D.C. against Netanyahu’s wishes. Netanyahu “made it clear to Minister Gantz that the State of Israel only has one prime minister,” according to Ynet, an Israeli media outlet. The Israeli embassy isn’t involved with Gantz’s visit.

We’re told that the meetings with Schumer and Jeffries will be private and other lawmakers won’t be attending.

Gantz also met on Monday with Vice President Kamala Harris and plans to see Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan during his trip. The White House on Monday defended the decision to hold these meetings with Gantz.

“This was a request by Minister Gantz to come to the United States and have meetings,” said John Kirby, the White House national security communications adviser.

Here are a few dynamics worth keeping in mind:

1) Schumer has been critical of Netanyahu, Israel’s longtime premier. Schumer told us in an interview last November that “Netanyahu has become a lot less popular” in recent years. The New York Democrat noted the Oct. 7 attack shook Israelis’ confidence in Netanyahu. Schumer also said Netanyahu is “letting the fanatics run the show.”

Schumer even told us Gantz would defeat Netanyahu “two to one” if an election were held in Israel.

2) The House and Senate Democratic caucuses are filled with lawmakers critical of both Netanyahu’s government and Israel’s deadly military operation in Gaza. The more centrist Gantz opposed Netanyahu’s proposed judiciary overhaul before the war.

In fact, a poll earlier this year showed that Gantz’s political faction would be the largest in the Knesset if elections were held again.

3) Schumer’s and Jeffries’ New York is home to 1.6 million Jews — more Jews than live in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv combined. Schumer is the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history. Both New York Democrats have a lot at stake when it comes to their Israel politics.

4) The meetings with Gantz come as Democrats on Capitol Hill have spoken out in greater numbers against Israel’s military operations in Gaza. Hill Democrats are warming to the idea of placing conditions on U.S. military aid for Israel. And lawmakers are pressing Biden — both publicly and privately — to use his leverage over Israel to end the war.

Top administration officials including Biden, Harris and Blinken are increasingly frustrated with Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which has led to more than 30,000 Palestinian deaths.

Even as U.S. officials take the extraordinary step of air-dropping aid into Gaza, Biden is pressing for a ceasefire-plus-hostage deal by the start of Ramadan, which is less than a week away. White House aides say Hamas won’t agree to any hostage deal.

Congress has struggled when it comes to supporting Israel. It hasn’t passed an aid package since the war began. Johnson has all but given up on it and refuses to put the bipartisan Senate package — which includes aid for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan — on the floor.

Jake Sherman, Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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